Self-portraits.

Let Me Be Frank: an essay about creativity and comics by Sarah Laing

Wellington writer, illustrator and Katherine Mansfield obsessive Sarah Laing has a new book out tomorrow. Here, she tells its origin story. 

My first baby was really bad at breastfeeding – or else, as my mother and the Plunket nurse insinuated, I had the wrong shaped nipples. He couldn’t get the suction right and it would take him an hour to slurp the milk out of me. It was not erotic – it was painful. The upshot was I got a lot of books read. This was the last time in my life that I could truly sink into books. It was 2003 and my phone didn’t yet have a death grip on me. Only a few friends texted. So, my son in the rugby hold, a paperback on my knee, I read as I’d done in childhood, the world falling away. 

One of those books was Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. The story of a girl growing up in Iran whilst the Islamic revolution was taking place, I was struck by how familiar she seemed despite our cultural differences, and how beautiful her black and white images were. They were arresting in an unassuming way – they lacked the flashy prowess of Marvel and DC comics, the competent boy comics style, as my friend Indira describes it. They were like expressionist woodblock prints. I can do this, I thought. 

Persepolis.

I levered the buggy replete with my four-month-old baby up the Gordon Harris steps; chose a hard-backed journal and an inky pen and began recording the minutiae of my day. The feedings, the walks along the blustery northern ridges of Wellington, the encounters with punks, the embarrassing outings to cafes with babies. I wrote about my neighbour, Mama Miklos, the Hungarian refugee, and my friends. When I’d almost filled the book up I stopped. I didn’t draw comics again for a number of years. 

Jonathan, my husband at the time, gave me a new hard-backed journal shortly after my third child was born. I was drowning, not waving, a mother unfit for motherhood, always making things, always feeling bad about the work I’d already done. I made Brett and Jemaine rag dolls and wool felt vampire bats. I grew artichokes, baked bread and built raised-bed gardens. I did craft with my children. People hated me for my frantic creative output, which I documented on my blog, but I wasn’t drawing, I wasn’t writing. I’d applied for a fellowship to write at the Frank Sargeson Centre, hoping that a room of my own might change that. They’d called me as I was walking tired, ice block-sticky children home from Carols By Candlelight and I could hardly hear the good news over the sound of my five-month-old baby crying, strapped to my chest. I was to share the fellowship with Sonja Yelich – she’d have the first half of the year and I’d have the second.

Buddle Findlay chose Sonja as the poster girl for the fellowship promotion. She was blonde and glamorous and had won a major book prize. Sonja told me that her daughter was going to be famous. She’d been discovered at the Rockquest at Belmont Intermediate and was now working with a record producer – but I didn’t believe her. She was a proud mother, and sure, her daughter might have talent, but famous? When Sonja was the fellow, she tiled the floor in poems printed out on A4 paper. One night a man with a sawn-off shotgun scaled the ivy-clad walls and tried to rob her. I wasn’t going to stay the night there – no way. I dropped my eldest at school, my middle at kindy and my baby at creche and then either biked or took the bus into Albert Park to climb the rickety stairs to unlock the door. The space was intimidating, the bookshelves lined with photographs of illustrious authors such as Janet Frame and Catherine Chidgey. At 4pm I returned to Mt Albert to collect the children, and began to cook dinner. It wasn’t the dreamy unstructured time of your traditional residency – I had a small window and I was frantic to fill it.  

Comics by Sarah Laing, written in 2003.

My friends and I had speculated about the ones who got residencies – what did they even do while they were there? Did they write, or did they have existential crises, spending their time dozing on the sofa, stalactites of drool forming at the corners of their lips? Where were all the novels they promised us? There were a number of residents who had not delivered the goods, as Graeme Lay and Kevin Ireland were keen to point out to me. I was not going to be like them. I was going to finish all the projects I had promised, and then some.

I wrote the comics before I began working on my computer – I sat at the oak table under the window. From there I could see the homeless people sleeping on the balcony. When Steve Braunias was a fellow, ostensibly writing a novel, he’d made friends with them over cigarettes. He’d since given up smoking. I bought cartridge pads from Gordon Harris, along with the Staedler pigment liners, and I folded the pages into six squares. Mostly my comics were just a page or two, taking me an hour to complete.

I created a WordPress blog, and accosted Dylan Horrocks at a Storylines festival, introducing myself as the newest cartoonist on the block. “Friend me on Facebook” he said. It turned out he had 1200 friends already. It also turned out that he liked my stuff – he shared it amongst his 1200 friends and his thousands of Twitter followers. Suddenly people I didn’t know were paying attention. I drew comics with heightened self-consciousness, and the thrill of getting the attention I craved.

Author photo: Grant Maiden photography.

When my residency came to an end in December 2010, I said goodbye. I wasn’t going to draw any more comics. It was nice for a project to have a beginning and an end, and for it not to drag its zombie corpse into a future in which WordPress was desperately uncool. And yet, it turned out that I had formed a habit. I was no longer present in my life; I was arranging it into panels as it happened. My daughter screaming until she threw up on the floor of the fruit shop? Material. My new boots rubbing the skin off the back of my ankles? Material. Sleepless nights, professional jealousy, oversharing at parties, fights with my husband? Material. I kept on drawing and drawing, posting and posting. I filled up one folder with drawings and then another. I obsessively checked my email to see if I’d got comments or likes. I got invitations from magazines to draw strips, and to talk. It seemed like my comics were making me famous, which was funny, because I’d started drawing them to make people pay attention to my novels. I was now Sarah Laing the cartoonist. 

I fell out with a friend over a comic. I’d revealed that she was having trouble in her relationship and she exploded. She’d told me that in confidence – I wasn’t to tell the world. I thought that everybody was having trouble with their relationships, but perhaps that was just me. Although we reconciled at the end, I felt too scared to write about people anymore, and it was people I was most interested in. I got into trouble with another friend, revealing her antipathy towards her job. I’d written a story about school mums puzzling over why their teenage daughters were so anxious when in fact the world was a better safer place. I’d thought otherwise – weren’t we facing an imminent climate disaster? I didn’t challenge them in person like I should’ve. Instead I drew a judgy comic, juxtaposing their conversation with the fleet of Karori Park SUVs and the parched creek. My readers leapt in on Facebook, and somehow (duh, privacy settings) one of the school mothers saw it. One scolded me for overstepping the line; the other told me via email that she was shocked at what a horrible person I was and how she was never going to speak to me again, and how we’d all be saved from climate change through technological innovations because Bill Nye said so. I apologised profusely, took the comic down and resolved to tackle issues head on rather than through writing. I thought that would be enough. I arrived 10 minutes late to school pick up for a term to avoid seeing her. When I finally did see her, I said hello, but she looked straight through me. She was a good person, she’d insisted. She volunteered for Ronald McDonald house. She never talked to me again. 

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“The book became talismanic – not just a retrospective, but a portrait of a marriage come undone.”

Jonathan and I separated in August 2018, shortly after I’d been awarded a Creative New Zealand grant to make this book. I spent the months post break-up trawling through all my old comics, vignettes of our life together. I selected the best ones, and then decided they weren’t the best ones and selected some other ones. I wrote new comics. I showed Jonathan the selection and made him read the manuscript because he was obliging that way, even after I’d dismantled our life together. The book became talismanic – not just a retrospective, but a portrait of a marriage come undone. I felt ambivalent and sad and also happy about all of the life that I had pinned down, butterflies in a cabinet.  

I dedicated the book to my family – after all, they were the subject of so many comics. I dedicated it to Jonathan, who’d encouraged me in the first place, and continued to encourage me even after we separated. This was it. It was over. I wasn’t sure if I’d write these kind of comics anymore. I wasn’t sure what I would write next, if anything. I now had a full time job, days away from the children, a city apartment, a Tinder account. Of course, all that would also be excellent material.

Let Me Be Frank: comics 2010-2019, by Sarah Laing (Victoria University Press, $35) is available at Unity Books. 


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